Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center
The Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center on South Hydraulic Avenue has come under scrutiny since September when a 17-year-old who was detained there later died. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)

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On Sept. 24, the Wichita Police Department brought 17-year-old Cedric Lofton to Sedgwick County’s Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, later describing him as  “paranoid” and “behaving erratically.”

Hours after his arrival, county corrections employees restrained Lofton face-down until he became unresponsive. Two days later, he died in the hospital.

His death — which the district attorney decided not to file charges in — has sparked conversations around the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC), which plays a unique role in the juvenile justice system. A joint city-county task force, whose first meeting is Feb. 3, is charged with reviewing the circumstances of Lofton’s death as well as the JIAC’s policies and procedures.

It’s one of the first times the JIAC has been thrust into the spotlight.

As the county and city prepare to assess JIAC policies, The Wichita Beacon is breaking down what this facility is, why it exists and the details behind how it operates.

What is the JIAC? 

The center is primarily a layover point in the juvenile justice system, which handles youth between the ages of 10 and 17. Young people who have been arrested or summoned by law enforcement are assessed at the center by specialists to determine their next steps. 

After the assessment, they could be booked into the juvenile detention facility, go home or be sent home with conditions, such as attending counseling services. 

The center is not a detention facility, and the average stay at the JIAC is two hours, according to the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections. However, young people can be detained in the JIAC. The center has two holding rooms that can be locked from the outside. The rooms can “contain a youth whose behaviors are out of control,” according to the center’s policy. The policy does not include a time limit for how long these rooms can be used.

Why does the JIAC exist?

In the mid-1990s, the state of Kansas passed a law requiring that all juveniles who are taken into custody by law enforcement receive a risk assessment. The assessment, which asks about criminal history and other factors, determines whether the young person should go to a detention facility or be released.

“This really comes out of the idea that the juvenile system is supposed to rehabilitate kids, help them be better, support families to make change,” said Steven Stonehouse, Sedgwick County’s deputy director of corrections. 

How do young people arrive at the JIAC?

There are at least six ways a young person can end up at the JIAC. 

The most common is by police. When a law enforcement officer in Sedgwick County arrests a young person, they take them to the JIAC first, Stonehouse said. The exception is if the young person is having a medical or mental health crisis, he added.

Law enforcement can also give juveniles a notice to appear at the JIAC at a later date if they choose not to arrest them, Stonehouse said. Agreements to appear at the JIAC are another arrest alternative for low-level offenses.

The least common ways young people enter JIAC are through voluntary walk-ins or showing up for court intake purposes. In these cases, a young person needs to give DNA samples and fingerprints to the court, which can be done at the center.

The district attorney’s office can also refer a young person’s case to JIAC if the office decides not to file criminal charges, according to District Attorney Marc Bennett. This happens if prosecutors want the center to assess whether the young person is eligible for an immediate intervention program, he added.

Does the JIAC accept people experiencing medical or mental health crises?

No, the center is not supposed to, Stonehouse said. He explained that law enforcement officers have to fill out a release form that details whether the youth in custody has a physical injury, signs of acute illness or warning signs for suicide, among other things. If any of these conditions is present, the center refuses to take them, Stonehouse said. 

“We say you can’t drop them off until you get a clearance,” Stonehouse said. Typically, it is a hospital that gives the clearance, he added. 

Stonehouse said the center has updated the release form to include juveniles held in WRAP restraints, a device with a locking shoulder harness, leg restraints and ankle straps. Lofton was in a WRAP restraint when the Wichita Police Department brought him to the JIAC.

Who works at the JIAC? Are they law enforcement officers? 

The JIAC is staffed by one to three intake specialists. The specialists typically have a bachelor’s degree in fields like social work, criminal justice or psychology and receive 40 hours of classroom training prior to the job, Stonehouse said. 

There, they are trained on a multitude of items, including the restraint system the center uses on youth, Stonehouse said.  

JIAC workers are not law enforcement officers. They can carry and use handcuffs, shackles and belly chains, according to the center’s policy. Other weapons are not permitted, according to the center’s policy.

What happens when a young person arrives at the JIAC? 

Young people will be interviewed by intake specialists about a variety of topics including criminal history, substance abuse and mental health

These assessments determine whether the individual will be booked into the juvenile detention facility, released or released with conditions. These conditions can include counseling, for the young person or their family, or referral to other outside resources.  

The screening is not a formal mental health evaluation, Stonehouse said.

“It screens them to see if there are some indicators of distress or possible mental health issues that could need addressed by the family,” Stonehouse said. The intake specialists are not qualified mental health professionals, he added.

What will the city-county task force address?

The 13-member task force is composed of representatives from nonprofits, social justice advocacy groups, local school districts and more. 

Each group was invited to join the task force by the city and county and nominated their own representatives. 

The task force will review the specific circumstances of Lofton’s death as well as the policies, procedures and physical layout of the JIAC. It’s expected to make recommendations for improvements to the city, county and state in three months.

Stonehouse, who is one of four supporting staff members for the task force, said use of force policies and the authorization to bring someone to detention are getting the most attention.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.